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Slack, Miller & Doak: Technical Communicator as Author

Slack, J. D., Miller, J. M., and Doak, J. (1993). The technical communicator as author: Meaning, power, authority. Journal of Business and Technical Communication, 7(1), 12-36.

While this article could feel dated (it was published over 20 years ago), its message is as relevant and meaningful today as it was when it was released. And I can only imagine the ripples this article likely started throughout the technical and professional communications community when it was released in 1993.

Summary. Technical communicators need to rethink their role as authors by advocating and adhering to an articulation view of their work, in which meaning is articulated and re-articulated across and through the entire context of the movement of meaning from and among sender and receiver. The goals is to the recognize the ethical responsibilities that technical communicators have and, in doing so, to equip them to make decisions about articulated meanings in ways that recognize, understand, and respond appropriately to the power structures and differentials working in all communications.

In short, this article assigns to technical communicators authority as authors and ethical responsibilities as articulators of meaning among senders, receivers, and stakeholders in communications. More importantly, the article defines meaning as inherently connected to power and power differentials. Technical communicators are tasked with continually (for the job is never complete) articulating meaning in ethical ways to reveal and respond to power politics and differentials that inevitably emerge as meaning is generated and communicated.

My favorite quote from the article:

“In a sense, technical communicators need to be shaken from the somnambulistic faith that their work is linguistically neutral” (p. 33).

Today I lived the ideas from this article. As a web writer, I write quite a lot of unattributed content. Recently we launched a new graduate degree program, and I was tasked with composing copy for web and print to introduce this new program. This morning, I received a note from my dean asking me to “re-read” and “revise accordingly” the pages for this new graduate degree program in light of a particularly limited way an acquaintance, who also happened to be the president of a local institution of higher education, interpreted the audience of this program based on our website description.

I immediately understood the power politics of the message: a dean and a college president had conversed, and the result was that those who answer to the dean must make right an issue whether we believe the issue is, in fact, valid. Responding that the copy was fine and clear as written was simply not an option, even if it were true.

As it turns out, it was possible to read the copy as the college president indicated. There was not a real problem with the language, but we had implied what should have been explicit. We discussed the copy in our weekly team meeting and developed a quick fix to address the issue.

We articulated meaning between two powerful people. That others had not noticed any problem with the copy — that the program chair had approved the copy and the target audience implied by the language — was no longer part of the articulation of meaning because of the power differential. I am a manager, my boss is a director, but the dean and a college president were involved. There was no question about our response; it was simply a matter of whether a quick fix or a lengthy repair was required.

Abundantly clear in this experience is that the copy I wrote was in no way “linguistically neutral.” No less than a president of a local college found the language linguistically exclusionary, and my dean appeared to tacitly agree with that conclusion. Their language, in turn, left little choice to me as author. I wrote the copy and was implicitly to blame for the misunderstanding; my boss and the program chair approved the copy, so they, too, were complicit in the misunderstanding. When we collaborated to implement a quick fix to the language, we were not perceived as authors, but as workers simply applying a patch to an imperfect product that we had created. The power differential drove home that perspective of authorship as simply a transmission function.